What is a Microchip?
Microchips, or integrated circuits, are made up of electrical components that make it adept in current flow and task management, namely transistors, resistors, capacitors and diodes.
The microchip, also referred to as an integrated circuit, is basically an electric circuit, albeit a very advanced one. Microchips have a wide range of purposes. Found in automobiles, television sets and smartphones, the microchip performs a very key role in the operation of modern devices. The most well-known application of this circuit is the microprocessor, used to route computer information and tasks.
Circuits are made up of a series of electrical components that make it adept in current flow and task management, namely transistors, resistors, capacitors and diodes. The transistor acts like a gateway for electrical currents, with the ability to stop and start electrical currents as well as amplify them, like in the case of a stereo speaker. The resistor constrains current flow, allowing a device to control the amount of electrical current being directed for purposes like television volume. Capacitors allow the collection and release of electricity in a burst, for things like camera flashes. Diodes control the circumstances for when electricity is allowed to flow and allow currents only when such conditions are met.
Each of these elements forms an integrated circuit at the most basic level, allowing for the controlled flow of electrical currents for a variety of purposes. In essence, they become the building blocks for constructing any type of electrical device. [Related: Future Computer Chips Could Assemble Themselves]
The constraints of old technology
Prior to the invention of the transistor, all electrical devices used the vacuum tube. Fulfilling the same purpose as the transistor, vacuum tubes allowed for electrical currents to be turned on and off. However, the vacuum tube was incredibly large, required more energy and broke quite easily. Due to their tendency of generating excessive heat, like a modern light bulb, electrical engineers were desperate for something better suited to technological advancements.
Building complex circuits that aspired to the same capabilities of the modern microchip proved quite difficult due to the limitations of the vacuum tube and how well it directed the flow of currents. One such example of its limitations was evident through the first digital computer, ENIAC, a 30-ton machine containing more than 17,000 vacuum tubes.
When researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories finally invented the transistor in 1947, the circuit was considered revolutionized. No longer burdened with the inefficiencies of vacuum tubes, integrated circuits could now become smaller and more reliable, paving the way to the modern microchip.
The inefficiencies of manually-assembled microchips
During the time when the transistor was created, electrical engineers were still faced with inefficient processes. Assembly lines were used to produce electrical circuits by hand, requiring workers to solder each component into place and connecting them via metal wires. Circuits aren’t able to function correctly when a connection is not properly made between components due to human error, and this proved very much to be a hindering factor in mass producing small circuits.
In 1958, Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments came across the solution. Rather than assembling multiple pieces together, he envisioned making all the components and chip out of the same semiconductor material and then connecting them with a layer of metal needed to connect them, thus creating a monolithic integrated circuit. This removed the need for individual components or wires, and paved the way toward a more automated process of the smaller microchips now seen today.
At about the same time, Robert Noyce, cofounder of the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, came across a similar discovery completely independent of Kilby’s work. Whereas Kilby used germanium for his work, Noyce came to a similar invention using silicon.
Microchips are now much smaller than their ancestors. Some of the most advanced integrated circuits contain millions of components on a surface smaller than a fingertip, demonstrating the long way we’ve come since the microchip’s initial creation.